Portland’s annual Maine Boatbuilders Show attracts an unusual mix of salty dogs, day-tripping families and wealthy customers, who fly in on their private jets to inspect the sloops, schooners, kayaks, ketches and yawls – and possibly put in an order or two.
“We encountered a little more snow than expected on our arrival into Boston,” says the British Airways captain, having just skidded up to the gate at Logan International. No grit, Sherlock, we joke to ourselves on debarkation – we had never experienced a landing as iffy as that. Things do n0t bode well for the 20th annual Maine Boatbuilders Show, held a further 70 miles north, in Portland; and if tentative reports are to be believed, the small coastal city is virtually impassable after a mid-March nor’easter has dumped 10 inches of snow on it.
Hitching a lift in a friend’s Porsche Cayenne proves a boon as we pass upturned cars and stranded vehicles on Interstate 95. We arrive in Portland two hours late but we are warm, dry and full of beans. Every year the Maine Boatbuilders Show is (thankfully) staged inside the Portland Company Marine Complex, a nine-acre industrial site that is home to 14 maritime firms which clear the decks for more than 200 exhibitors and up to 10,000 visitors over three days.
The complex has a rich industrial history, one founded on shipbuilding and locomotive engineering. In 1846 the dock at Fore Street became the winter harbour for Montreal before icebreakers made the Gulf of St Lawrence navigable.
Between 1846 and 1978, when the Portland Company Marine Complex went out of business, the works manufactured 628 locomotives, as well as 128 boats, including Second World War Liberty ships. Phin Sprague, the current president of Portland Yacht Services and organiser of the Maine Boatbuilders Show, has saltwater running through his veins. “I had just completed a circumnavigation of the globe when we bought back the yard in 1978,” he says. Sprague saw the opportunity to turn the premises into a permanent, fully functioning boat yard.“We didn’t really have a choice – the state imposed a strict zoning law that forced marine-only activity in the harbour.” Business flourished for the next few years, until 1987, when Sprague spotted another opportunity after becoming disillusioned by what he rather disparagingly dubs “plastic boat shows”.
He had been visiting several of the country’s maritime fairs and felt cheated on his return to Portland, a place some in the business term the boat-building capital of the US. “I knew more about every aspect of the industry than any of the exhibitors. I’d go to these plastic boat shows and get rudimentary answers to rudimentary questions. Why on earth would you go to a show where you know more about the paint than the guy sitting behind the paint booth?” So he decided to stage his own show on home surf. He had no idea how to orchestrate such an event and invited a large boat fair organiser to oversee the attraction, but he struggled to drum up business from the contacts Sprague gave him. “He pulled out a month before the show was meant to premier, so my wife, Joanna, and I put in calls and organised it ourselves.”
The first show was a surprise success, with 1,000 visitors inspecting the wares of 12 boat yards, four of which still show, including those of premium wooden boat-builder Dick Pulsifer, designer Michael Porter, Doughdish and Sprague’s own Portland Yacht Services. Many attribute the show’s popularity to Sprague’s enthusiasm for the industry. “Phin lives this life. He knows more about boat building than most and his passion drives everyone around him,” says Steven Buttner, of Hodgdon Yachts, who regards the Maine event as a highlight in the maritime calendar.
The Maine Boatbuilders Show plays host to an array of specialist exhibitors and attracts a discerning crowd. Portland International Airport claims it receives more private jets during that March weekend than at any other time of year. Punters come to buy; after all, you wouldn’t fly in from around the world to test the seats and kick trailer tyres.
With heavyweight yacht-builders such as Hinckley, whose bog-standard “picnic” powerboat sells for anywhere between $500,000 (€370,000) and $750,000 (€550,000), depending on spec, there is something for every taste and pocket. One founding philosophy still unites the show – all the exhibitors are high-quality manufacturers, dedicated to artisanal techniques and small-scale, bespoke commissions.
Very few boats on show are available to buy and they often belong to existing customers who are more than happy to have their boats exhibited so that the builders can secure future commissions. “The builder is sitting in someone else’s vessel, so, if you want to buy one, you have to enter into a contract with him and, a few months later, you’ll take delivery – it’s all about trust. Maine is made up of all these tiny fingers of land and, if you wanted to visit all the boat-builders, it would take you a couple of years. So people drive or fly to meet the makers in person, all in one place,” says Sprague.
That’s also true of other products available to order or buy. We overhear a heated discussion between a customer and the president of a gear-making company. It becomes apparent that the customer has a problem with a steering gear and who better to talk to than the captain of industry? The exchange ends in a personal guarantee from the president and a sailing invitation from the customer.
Walking up and down the show’s gangways, you are struck by an intensity of interest in every facet of what is an obsessive’s industry. “There’s so much diversity here: fibreglass kayaks next to lobster boats, sloops and schooners. Then you have the knickknacks upstairs,” says Sean Tarpey, of Rumery’s, whose 11.6m express cruiser is a real draw.
On the first floor, close to the food hall, there are stands dedicated to accessories. Shaw & Tenney designs, builds and sells speciality sculling oars, paddles and marine accessories. It is the third oldest manufacturer of sailing paraphernalia in America and wouldn’t miss Maine for all the rigging in Casco Bay. “You meet great contacts, make great sales and learn so much. We have some great friends here,” says Steve Holt, the current owner.
Harry Bryan is a respected wooden sailing boat manufacturer and an old hand at Maine. He sums up the whole experience best with a nonchalant shrug. “In this kind of weather, you’re not coming here for nothing, I mean, look at it out there. Whether we’re selling or buying, we all love this business.”